Did you know that the New York Times has a crew of "digital renegades" who are reinventing journalism through interactive graphics and databases? It's true! Too bad they're not working on fixing the newspaper's business.
Aron Pilhofer, Andrew DeVigal, Steve Duenes, Matthew Ericson, and Gabriel Dance (left to right) created the site's Word Train, a tool which polled readers on how they were feeling and displayed their answers, in an homage to Twitter and Facebook's status-update features. (Plus Dance has two earrings, so you know he must get the Web.) That's just one example of the string of multimedia innovations they've been pursuing since Times deputy managing editor Jonathan Landman greenlighted their work in 2007, New York reports in its All New issue.
But the fact that the Times has promoted its multimedia producers to full-time newsmen is a colorful distraction from the newspaper's real problem: It has not found a way to pay for its newsgathering operation online. And as print advertising revenues crater, the infographics department will surely be revealed as just another cost center to be cut. The bright young things are every bit as clueless as their ink-stained counterparts:
Over time, Pilhofer adds, this is the role the Times can play: exciting online readers about the value of reportage, engaging them deeply in the Times’ specific brand of journalism—perhaps even so much that they might want to pay for it. If this comes true, it would mean this terrible year was not for nothing: that someday, this hard era would prove the turning point for the paper, the year when it didn’t go down, when it became something better. Pilhofer shrugs and puts his glass back down on the Algonquin table. “I just hope there’s a business model when we get there.”
Why hasn't the Times hired equally brilliant counterparts on the publishing side? At current rates, the Times needs to increase traffic sevenfold to reach breakeven as an online-only business. It's the Times's business which requires reinvention, not its journalism.